The Godfather: Part II Review

(3.5 STARS)

It’s often called the greatest sequel ever and is as highly regarded as its extraordinary predecessor, The Godfather. Yet, I think Francis Ford Coppola takes a step back with “The Godfather Part II.” It’s a very good film—nobody can deny that. Like the original, it follows the trajectory of an epic Greek tragedy. But the film is almost too grand in scope. It loses its focus shifting back and forth between story lines, and the main story line just isn’t as compelling as the five families’ battle in “The Godfather.” There’s a whole lot to admire, but unfortunately, the unreasonably high expectations set by the first film make this seem like a slight disappointment.

Nearly a decade after the murder of the heads of four of New York’s five families, Michael Corleone (the lone survivor) lives in Nevada with his family. Business is good, but his family life is full of problems. His wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), is frustrated that her husband’s illegitimate activities persist. His brother, Fredo (John Cazale), doesn’t follow his father’s creed that nothing is more important than family. And his sister, Connie (Talia Shire), is as irresponsible as ever.

One night, someone attempts to assassinate Michael in his home. He comes to learn that there is a rat in the family, so he fishes through his business partners, including Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) and Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), to find out who betrayed him. As his determination to make things right grows, he further loses his grip on his family.

Michael’s story parallels Coppola’s direction in an interesting way. In “The Godfather,” Coppola tells a very personal tale about family and power. In the sequel, as he tries to do more, he begins to lose his grip on the material (the same way Michael’s expanding business causes the holes in his family to become chasms). The main story here (which is convoluted enough already) is juxtaposed to the completely unrelated story of Vito Corleone’s (Robert DeNiro) rise to power. I found this material fascinating, but the film’s momentum is never steady.

Of course, the film is immaculately composed. The score, by Nino Rota, is as good as it was in the first film. The cinematography, art direction, costumes, etc. are all excellent. I was especially impressed by the film’s editing. While I didn’t think the Vito subplot was necessary, I did think the transitions between stories were just great.

In terms of acting, the film is missing the monumental performance of Marlon Brando, but the ensemble is still one of the finest ever. Al Pacino takes the spotlight and runs with it. He’s given the chance to do much more than he was in the first film. It’s probably the actor’s greatest work. We get to see both sides of his personality—fire and ice. And it’s hard to say which one Pacino does better here.

The rest of the cast is extraordinary. The late John Cazale makes the most of a much-expanded role. Robert Duvall is as steady as he was in the first film as consigliore Tom Hagen. Diane Keaton’s character is that of a stereotypical suffering wife, but Keaton makes her much deeper than that. Then there’s Robert DeNiro. He won an Oscar for his work as Vito, something that should have been impossible. Stepping in for Marlon Brando, who gave what might be the greatest performance ever, is hard enough. But to make the character your own is something that few actors could have pulled off. Luckily, DeNiro is one of them. The Oscar was well-deserved.

I’d say “The Godfather Part II” is a satisfying addendum to its unforgettable predecessor. It’s not the greatest sequel of all-time. It isn’t even the best film of 1974 (that would be Chinatown). It is a very good genre film and tells another tragic story about the ways in which power corrupts us.

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